Reforming China’s Juvenile Justice System: Progress or Regress?

In late May 2020, the violent death of a female lawyer in China sparked public outrage – mainly on social media. Allegedly strangled by her 15-year old daughter, the case reignited a nation-wide debate about whether China’s juvenile justice system is too lenient in its approach, despite the girl potentially facing criminal charges if found guilty. Social media commentators were quick to divert attention to simply lowering the age of criminal responsibility and introducing tougher measures to punish juvenile delinquents, however, their calls do not address the core reasons why young people turn to crime. While showing no indication of lowering the age of being criminally indicted, the justice system in China also appears to be opting for reactionary measures rather than taking a long-term approach.

Perceiving a Setback

The fact that China’s juvenile justice system is being lambasted, particularly on social media platforms, is not a new phenomenon. In December 2018, the swift return of a 12-year old boy to school following an incident in which he stabbed his mother to death spurred a heated debate about holding criminal juveniles accountable at a young age. Similar concerns were raised when a 13-year old boy allegedly sexually assaulted and murdered a 10-year old girl in  China’s Northeast, despite the boy being sentenced to three years in enforced rehabilitation – the harshest legal punishment for offenders of his age.

However, what many on social media perceived to be a rampant uptick in juvenile crimes, has largely been rebuked in a recent government report. The Supreme People Procuratorate (SPP) White Paper, which came out just days after the lawyer’s death, highlights that juvenile crime rates have not been rising above the levels of previous years. Although the new statistics indicate that violent crimes were no longer as prevalent among minors as robbery or fighting in public, they nonetheless paint a rather grim picture. The statistics show that in recent years, young offenders tend to come from better educated backgrounds with at least high school education but were found to be jobless in many cases when formally charged. Standing out, however, was a marked increase in rape and sexual assault committed by juveniles under the age of 16, which the SPP White Paper now lists as comprising 21 percent of all crimes committed. This spike, according to legal experts, is likely due to a lack of sex education in schools but could also stem from early exposure to adult content online.

Ill-Conceived, But Not Lenient

Even if calls to adjust the authorities’ approach to juvenile crime are largely confined to tougher measures and criminalizing younger people, it would be misguided to outright dismiss public concerns. Despite the juvenile justice system’s heavy focus on rehabilitation and diverting young people away from facing custodial sentences, results have been patchy at best. It seems that these inconsistencies are the main reason as to why the system is perceived as lenient.

In the eyes of many online commentators, showing leniency  towards juvenile offenders  undermines public safety, while harsher punishments are seen as pivotal in deterring youngsters from committing crimes. Introducing more severe penalties for transgressions, however, has also been met with ambiguity. Whereas the public widely praised a proposal by a group of national legislators which suggested prolonged prison sentences or official supervision, legal experts criticized these measures as inadequate. For critics, stricter penalties fail to address why young people commit crimes, including economic difficulties, divided families, and an outdated school system, which could potentially reverse the present retrogressive trend.  

Currently, China’s legal system protects all minors under the age of 14 from prosecution, whereas minors aged 14-16 would face reduced charges. Answering calls to lower the age of criminal responsibility would merely result in an increase in the number of minors labelled as juvenile offenders. Under current provisions minors under the age of 14 are sent back to their families or guardians to be disciplined, despite  lacking training  to respond to delinquent behavior. Yet, as Chinese legal experts have noted, the familial background and economic situation are key drivers of crime. Although done in the best interest of the child, as China’s juvenile justice system mandates, protecting delinquents by outsourcing the task of penalizing them will do little to achieve justice in the long run.

A Law with Real Change?

After already deliberating on the topic of reforming the juvenile justice system, it is perhaps telling that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s convention in early August 2020 reviewed a draft proposal for the national Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency Law. Although the committee members did not deliberate on lowering the age of criminal responsibility per se, the proposed changes place more emphasis on custodial measures.

Albeit not yet formally passed, the draft places even more emphasis on education than its precursor. Whereas previously, re-education for young criminals was a mere option, local authorities are now explicitly encouraged to establish “specialized schools” overseen by steering committees.. The move is largely in line with the overall guidance that rehabilitative measures are still favored over punitive measures, yet it relegates more control to state authorities.  While this draft proposal is meant to be a response to growing public concern, it still begs the question whether these specialized schools will be inherently different from detention facilities. Particularly as it fails to explicate how these schools will operate, who will run them, or what “moral, legal, and mental health education” standards they will uphold. 

The draft proposal serves the purpose of relegating juvenile delinquents to the sidelines of society rather than addressing what drives, and consequently what may inhibit, their behavior. According to the suggested changes, these educational facilities are largely meant to house those who are not old enough to be charged with criminal responsibility. While this may seem a valid move at first glance, it could ultimately signal that asserting more top-down control does not require changing the legal age of criminal responsibility to get tougher on juvenile delinquents. As such, the legislative suggestions foreground correctional, albeit opaque, measures at the expense of investing in preventing juveniles from committing crimes in the first place.

Apart from running the risk of further alienating young criminal offenders under the veil of re-education, the central government’s current response pattern resembles reactionary measures implemented to quell public discontent. After all, lowering the age of criminal responsibility would have likely led to an increase in the number of young offenders, which could result in an even stronger public reaction that the authorities were not doing enough to safeguard public safety. By doubling down on refitting the educational approach, the central authorities appear more concerned with providing a swift and visible response. In the long-term, however, it remains to be seen whether such measures will alleviate public concerns or whether they may ultimately lead to more discontent being aimed at the juvenile justice system.